Designer Steve Panton talks us through his work on Elizabeth Wilson’s latest crime thriller She Died Young.

London, 1956. A young woman has been found dead in a hotel in King’s Cross. It looks like an accident, and Scotland Yard isn’t interested in accidents. But Fleet Street journalist Gerry Blackstone reckons there’s more to it than meets the eye.

My main intention for the cover of this period-set thriller was to not only clearly represent the genre and the time period – a classically structured crime novel with a hint of Cold War espionage, set in the 1950s – but to capture the film noir aesthetic used in designs for Elizabeth Wilson’s previous titles.

Elizabeth Wilson backlist images

The various concepts and the final cover below explore different approaches, from authentic 1950s photography to more creative ‘filmic’ photo collages, all complimented by period-appropriate art deco typography.

She Died Young pic 1

Nothing says film noir like a dramatically lit woman smoking a cigarette. These three designs explored this in various ways. Two feature authentic 1950s photography – a menacing figure helping the woman light her cigarette, and an isolated, vulnerable woman on a park bench who could be the dead girl at the heart of the book’s plot. The third photo shows a more confident character, portraying her as a glamorous and powerful woman, hinting at the mysteriously well-connected madam Sonia Mallory, a central character in the novel.

She Died Young jackets 2

With fiction, and especially crime fiction, I think it’s important to maintain an element of mystery. This is probably why I have a bit of a history of putting legs on book covers (see my covers for Serpent’s Classics Jernigan and Fatale). Not directly showing exactly what I, as the designer, believe the character looks like leaves more to the reader’s imagination. The stair image links directly to an early scene from the book in which the young woman is found dead at the bottom of a set of stairs.

She Died Young image 3

This approach was the most ‘filmic’ and emphasises the ‘thriller’ aspect of She Died Young more than the ‘crime fiction’ element. I originally intended to portray this woman’s silhouette in front of a smoke-covered shot of Kings Cross station in order to set the scene. However, this element ended up developing into the mysterious figure looming over her, which whilst perhaps overly dramatic I believe works well with the title.

She Died Young image 5

The final cover evolved from my earlier ‘dramatically lit women smoking cigarettes’ designs, whilst also keeping the element of mystery from the ‘leg’ concepts. The end result is a simpler, less cluttered approach.  The small touch of red on each manicured fingernail is a striking detail; for the print edition, we highlighted this element using a spot-UV treatment, which I think really helps convey the stylishness of Elizabeth Wilson’s crime thrillers.

More articles from Steve Panton:

Designing the Serpent’s Tail classics 

And designing Jernigan


Twitter: @stevepanton

Instagram: @stevepanton @serpentstail